Breath Clay

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From a page at Chambers Wines about the VinItaly exhibition in Verona:

Caption: "Some translations are more successful than others".

But what, asks Francois Lang, is "Breath Clay" a (bad?) translation of?

We can find a clue in this YouTube video entitled "Breath Clay",

The description starts like this:

Il respiro dell'argilla genera un territorio unico dove l'uomo con un lavoro duro, ostinato, domestica la famiglia dei vitigni Lambrusco ancora oggi selvatici, incontaminati.

"Il respiro dell'argilla" does seem to mean "the breath of the clay". It's not clear to me whether the clay is metaphorically breathing, or whether this is a poetic reference to the atmosphere created by the local clayey soil, or what.

Nor am I sure about the syntax of the dove clause. Leaping past the syntax to a plausible meaning, I get something like

The breath of the clay creates a unique area where man with difficult, stubborn work keeps the domestic family of Lambrusco varietals still wild and pure.

But the parse?

I'm assuming that this and this are not relevant…


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 12:02 pm

    Is "domestica" a verb?

    Anyway, I think we're in the territory of "racy of the soil" and "goût de terroir".

  2. FM said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 12:09 pm

    Isn't it "domesticates the [still wild and untouched] family"?

  3. Amy de Buitléir said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 12:19 pm

    Could it be the Italian equivalent of "[goût de] terroir"?

  4. Kiara said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 12:36 pm

    In this case, "domestica" sounds like a variation of the verb "addomesticare", so, we could translate it as "he tames the…", referring to a variety of wild vine.
    Still, it is embarrassing to read this kind of "translations", and I have yet to see a decent one (italian into English).

  5. Tom S. Fox said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 12:38 pm

    Wow, your Italian sucks!

    It actually says, “The breath of clay generates a unique region where man relentlessly tames the to this day wild and uncontaminated Lambrusco vines with hard work.”

    [(myl) My Italian is actually Latin, just to be clear. (And maybe their advertising agency's English is actually Danish?) But I did try to figure out how "domestica" could be a verb form — what's the secret?]

  6. David Fried said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 12:47 pm

    Presumably "il respiro dell' argilla" is what the French call the "terroir"–the peculiar qualities of the soil and microclimate that supposedly make it possible to discriminate wine from the same grape varieties grown in different vineyards, however close. The rest of the sentence seems to be essentially adman's nonsense. These are domestic grapes. How are they still "wild" today?

  7. chips mackinolty said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 12:49 pm

    For whatever reason, Italian companies seem particularly susceptible to appalling translations. God knows why. Combining Italian purple prose with human or mechanical translation machines doesn't seem to help. I have only once run into an Italian web site with almost perfect English (and this is not a scientific study, but reasonably extensive).

    I can only assume from this we are being invited to a notion of sensory perfection that arises from smelling the scent of the land/the soil. La terra/il terrono. Whatever. The "breath of clay"? Heavy clay soils, as far as I know, are not exactly great for growing grapes. Jesus wept.

    As mentioned, Italian is prone to purple prose, prosa viola, which is giddy enough on its own, without calling for a slick You Tube effort with supers in English. Lambrusco is a crappy enough wine to deal with, without even crappier ad agencies trying to score a few points. "Breath clay"? Madonna!

  8. Mike Thompson said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 1:01 pm


    The verb is indeed 'domesticare'. The structure is not unmarked, but is a fairly common flourish in Italian, even in upmarket advertising. I would not be surprised to find out that 'clay breath' was translated by a relative whose two weeks in London qualifies them – yes a third person singular 'them' – as the resident English expert. Semi-poor translations are a way of life here, just as semi-poor translations fuel a lot of Italian restaurants in the States.

    [(myl) Interesting. has "addomesticare" but nothing for "domesticare". I usually find their information about Romance languages pretty accurate…]

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 1:35 pm

    Hard to see how the vines could be both "relentlessly tamed" and "wild and uncontaminated" at the same time.

    As for "breath clay", I'm guessing that someone was at least savvy enough to realize that "clay breath" would not exactly be a quality one seeks in a wine.

  10. david said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 1:43 pm

    Googling suggests breath of clay is the name of their new advertising campaign, e.g.

  11. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 3:28 pm

    Gregory Kusnick: Well, it's wild until it's tamed. Whenever a wild vine wanders on to their land, they go out and tame it.

  12. Sean M said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 4:57 pm

    I think that most Anglophone copywriters would tweak the metaphor, wave in the direction of etymology, and render breath with "spirit" or "soul" (Latin spirare and all that).

  13. Matt Juge said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 6:36 pm

    Wiktionary has an entry for domesticare.

  14. Catanea said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 7:05 pm

    Porosity? I.e., NOT "heavy" clay, but light, breathable clay?

  15. Ron said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 7:42 pm

    My Harper Collins (1990) has only addomesticare = to tame. But my Bantam New College (1981) has both: addomesticare = to tame and domesticare = to domesticate. It also has domare = to tame, to extinguish, to quell. Are they synonyms or are there shades of meaning?

    Also, I happened to notice that there is a verb addormentare = to put to sleep as well as dormire = to sleep. Is this a common construction in Italian?

  16. Matt said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 8:16 pm

    There's a little more information from the source here:

    Il titolo del video “Breath Clay” ovvero “soffio”,”respiro d’argilla”, volutamente racchiude un sogno contemplativo legato ai quattro elementi che hanno segnato le strade dell’umanità: l’audacia, l’eleganza, l’amore, l’amicizia.

    My Italian is doubly terrible in that it's actually Latin and my Latin is terrible, but it sounds like the weirdness is there intentionally ("volutamente").

    I wonder if they're aiming at some sort of resonance with the creation-of-man story in Genesis involving breath and (in some translations) clay.

  17. Ray said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 8:55 pm

    I read this as 'the breathing clay' as in 'the living, breathing clay', and I think they might be trying to make a connection between that and the frothy fizzy quality of lambrusco wines? (this living breathing spirit of the 'terroir' is what makes the wine so wild and pure, even today?)

  18. Ray Girvan said,

    April 14, 2015 @ 9:13 pm

    Nobody's so far mentioned "petrichor".

  19. Jason said,

    April 15, 2015 @ 3:10 am

    Does Italian have any polysemy or resonances between respiro as literal "breath" and non-literal "spirit", in the way it is in Hebrew, Japanese, Greek and doubtless many other languages? My dictionaries don't list any but that's not surprising. I agree that "spirit of clay" is probably the intended meaning here.

  20. Bean said,

    April 15, 2015 @ 7:26 am

    Actual native Italian speaker here (though I learned it as a child, then moved away, so don't ask me to translate any dirty words):

    The "breath of clay" creates a unique territory where man, with hard work and persistence, tames the family of Lambrusco vines that are still wild and pure today.

    It would have been easier to parse with at least one comma that, stylistically, we might have put in had it been English, after "unico". I find Italians tend to leave out those sort of commas that set off subordinate clauses. Also now I'm wondering about ostinato, does it refer to the man, or the work? I immediately understood domestica as a verb because there was nothing feminine it could have been pointing to.

    For the video description, it is something like

    The title of the video "Breath Clay" or indeed "puff", "respiro d'argilla" intentionally includes a contemplative dream connected to the four elements that have marked the road of (*) humanity: boldness, elegance, love, and friendship.

    (*) "marked the road of", I feel like we have a comparable idiomatic expression in English but it's not coming to me…

    As for polysemy between literal "breath" and "spirit" the dictionary is singularly unhelpful but I could ask my dad (a true native speaker). :)

    Addormentare: is the "falling" part of asleep. Where "dormire" is the steady-state. Also you usually see addormentare used reflexively, "il bambino si e' addormentato nel mio letto" (the baby fell asleep on my bed), but once it's happened and the baby is just continuing to sleep, "il bambino dorme".

  21. glawery said,

    April 15, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

    While it's probably not right on topic I still feel it worthy to share. I am always surprised to realize that a post/blog like this while written in english has nothing to do with England. Over here if you say Lambrusco a good part of the adult population start grinning because of the Toy Dolls song from the 80's. According to The Independent "It's hard for a drink to make a comeback if it never really went away. Particularly if it has lurked, since the Seventies, on the bottom shelf of local corner shops… …Lambrusco was feverishly popular in the 1970s and beyond – some 100 million litres of Lambrusco Bianco were being sold nationwide by the end of the Eighties…"
    I wouldn't call it a recommendation for any wine that its popular with the British :-). Nowadays the spirit of the song is rather associated with Lambrini ( a native cider ), so much so that Lambrusco did try to sue its maker because of "…one manufacturer trying to ride on the back of another's goodwill and success,".

    see also:

  22. Licia said,

    April 18, 2015 @ 10:45 am

    [Native Italian speaker] A few months ago I asked the Italian script author to clarify the meaning of Breath Clay; apparently it's all about "la licenza poetica del dream: è tra i preferiti di Bob Dylan e Lucinda Williams" (whatever that means – not sure which was a favourite of BD and LW, whether poetic licence or "dream", and why dream rather than Italian sogno). If you speak Italian, you can find our brief exchange on Twitter.

    Additional information in Italian and in English in Making of: Breath Clay – Lambrusco, musica e passione:

    […] The videoclip’s title “Breath Clay” is deliberately about a contemplative dream based on the four elements that marked humanity’s long journey: boldness, elegance, love, friendship. […]

  23. Ray said,

    April 18, 2015 @ 6:39 pm

    licia, your comment makes me think maybe the video was all about the "breadth" of clay!

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